Pronoun Usage at Grace

Media provided by Sharon McCutcheon, via Unsplash.

A handful of trailblazing students and student spaces are spearheading a charge to clearly define pronoun usage guidelines in an attempt to ensure that all students who identify using non-binary pronouns feel seen within this community.

“I use cis[gender] pronouns so I can’t speak from personal experience, but what I do know is that we do need to start recognizing misgendering as a form of making students feel unsafe,” says Oliver B. ‘24 (he/him), a member of the Student Diversity Council (SDC) and Spectrum, the LGBTQ+ affinity and alliance space. He continued, “We lack faculty accountability which causes students to feel unsafe within their school environment.” 

When Katie Love L. ‘24 (she/they) told a teacher about their preferred pronouns, the teacher “thought [they] were lying” and reached out to their parents to confirm that these pronouns were in fact the ones that the teacher should use. “It was unsettling and told me that my teacher doesn’t believe that my parents could actually be supportive of me. … I get that it was coming from a place where the teacher was trying to make sure that my parents were on the same page, but I assured this teacher that I’ve had multiple sit-down conversations with my parents for years.”

River L. ‘24 (they/them) has also spoken with their dean about having their name changed officially on GraceNet and, though their parents are accepting, they are not yet ready to authorize the switch from their birth name, Naomi, to their chosen name, River, across official platforms. River expressed their frustration with this system and is grateful that their parents are “somewhat supportive” because they know of some kids that “can’t even tell their parents because of how they would react.” 

It’s invalidating. It’s not my parents’ name. It’s mine. 

River L. ’24

Parental consent is Grace’s main concern and hurdle when it comes to officially recognizing (changing their GraceNet title, updating their Gmail username, using certain pronouns in a report card, etc.) a student’s non-binary pronouns. Mr. Jean-Robert Andre (he/him), Dean of Equity and Inclusion, stated in an interview with the Gazette that “many of our guidelines we are learning through professional development and also thinking about what other schools are doing … Everybody’s experience is different and it’s really hard to make a blanket statement.” 

Mr. Andre continued, “Some folks have ‘come out’ to their parents and they are fully supportive. The school knows, and the parents know, and … the guidelines and best practices that we’ve had have come from instances where that’s been the case … But we know that’s not always the case and so we’re trying to think about what structures we can put in place to make sure that we can honor and respect a student’s privacy and sense of self while also honoring the relationship between the student and the family and the school. …We want to make sure that we’re not creating a dynamic where we are at odds with a family, or that a student is at odds with their own family.”

Mr. Andre recognized that Grace doesn’t yet have a “laid out, strict policy” and that more conversations within the community and other schools is necessary to determine one, and it seems that students at Grace are taking matters into their own hands.

Early this month, Spectrum sent a New York City Department of Education article to the administration that details how to support gender expansive students, hoping that this would help outline ways in which Grace can adopt concrete policies. On Mar. 3, SDC hosted a breakfast panel for students and faculty to facilitate discussion surrounding pronoun usage. During the Martin Luther King Jr. symposiums late last year, 9th-12th grade students hosted a space where gender identity and expression at Grace was explored. Grace students seem to be leading and guiding the administration towards the vision that they have for Grace in the context of pronoun usage, but at what cost?

Oliver said that what “pains” him is that “students of SDC and Spectrum are doing so much and certain teachers care about this issue deeply. But it seems like this work is occurring parallel to the discrimination mainly stemming from other faculty members but certainly the administration at Grace.” 

Beatrix F. ‘24 (she/her), also a member of SDC and Spectrum, stated that “Students feel safe around certain teachers and their friends, but not yet safe within the broader Grace community … there’s an undercurrent of transphobia that isn’t visible to everyone. You can see it if you know where to look.” 

There’s an undercurrent of transphobia that isn’t visible to everyone. You can see it if you know where to look.

Beatrix F. ’24

Sometimes, the decision not to introduce oneself using non-binary pronouns does not come from fear of something as blatant as abuse, but out of fear of being dismissed. Katie Love said in an interview with the Gazette that they prefer identifying with they/them pronouns, but chooses to introduce themselves using she/they pronouns because  “people say it’s ‘too hard’ to remember … and I don’t feel like always explaining it.” They elaborated, “It’s how it would feel if someone looked at you and directly said, ‘that’s not what you are and that’s not how I’ll see you.’” 

Teacher Nguyen (they/them) gave this same “concession” when they first started teaching at Grace over Zoom and identified as she/they: “I was sort of testing the waters as far as how open I wanted to be about my identity and how out of the closet I wanted to be so over Zoom. I prefer they/them, but I also didn’t want it to be a big deal if people were transphobic.” Once they became a “full member” of the community, teaching Geometry and Calculus, they wanted to be “authentic to [themselves].” As one of the only faculty members who uses non-binary pronouns, Teacher Nguyen feels that “students have been really accepting” and that this student-teacher relationship has felt “really great and validating” and gender euphoria-promoting. 

It’s how it would feel if someone looked at you and directly said, ‘that’s not what you are and that’s not how I’ll see you.’

Katie Love L. ’24

Teacher Nguyen shared that faculty have been “slower” to become accustomed to non-binary pronouns and that this has been a “stressor” for them this year, but that “almost everyone is trying” and are “well-intentioned.” Teacher Nguyen conceded that there are some staff members who seem to refuse to use their correct pronouns no matter how many times they are corrected. 

Teacher Nguyen ultimately stated that the community “needs work … It has a ways to go before it is a fully safe and inclusive environment for nonbinary or trans people. … I don’t want the students to be feeling those things cause we’re supposed to be creating a safe space for them.” 

Almost all subjects interviewed agreed on the fact that the absence of faculty training around how to use non-cisgender pronouns seems like a grave oversight. “It’s mandatory that faculty do some amount of anti-racism training,” remarked Teacher Nguyen, “My first week of meetings were all just anti-racism workshops. That’s great and necessary and needed, I just wish that there was also gender diversity and acceptance training. How to be respectful of different identities and whatnot. That’s not something that the school currently does. It’s really hard for me to be able to be supportive and create a safe space for people if I, myself, am struggling to feel that for me.” 

While faculty hasn’t had professional training when it comes to how to use non-binary pronouns, faculty meetings including have been dedicated to adressing the matter this school year. 

Teacher Nguyen’s overriding wish is that “certain colleagues wouldn’t assume that they know everything or that they know a person’s identity. Be more open-minded to listening to people. … You don’t have to understand someone in order to accept them. … respect their identity, and validate that.”

And every little thing counts. Throughout these interviews, students shared moments that may have seemed inconsequential to anyone else but made them feel permitted to be themselves. Katie Love noted the teachers that input their pronouns at the bottom of their emails and those that asked for their pronouns on the first day of classes (about ⅓ of all of their teachers). They notice which teachers backtrack, without causing a scene, when they make a mistake. River, who is beginning to look at college applications even though they’re only in 10th grade, appreciated the box that gave students the space to provide a preferred name. 

While Grace still has a long way to go, many recognize that Grace is leagues ahead of other comparable independent schools. 

“Grace is really strong in its ways of wanting to be as accepting as possible.” Katie Love commented. “It’s setting a pretty high bar just because they are open to talking about this.” 

Like many others, Paisley chose Grace because of its liberal slant even though they were accepted to more selective institutions: “I got into Dalton, Fieldston, Choate … but I didn’t go because I wanted to go somewhere I felt like I could feel safe.”  

In terms of what the community, specifically faculty, can do moving forward, Katie Love sees it as pretty straightforward: “Make an effort. The fact that the intention is there makes a big difference. … don’t be afraid to ask questions just like how teachers want us to ask questions and participate. … The only phrase I can think of is ‘just do it.’”

If you have experienced harassment from other students or from faculty members, consider contacting your dean, Student Support Guides, or any trusted adult for help.